The World of Alara Part I: The Five Shards

The Vorthos Guide to Magic: The Gathering
Follow Archive Trap on Twitter and Tumblr
Welcome back to Archive Trap, the unofficial guide to Magic: the Gathering. Today we are going to talk about Alara, a plane most of you know and fondly remember as the home of the shards - both the sundered planes and the name for their respective tri-color combinations. Alara was a very popular destination as a multi-color plane, and one of the few planes we haven’t had a true ‘return’ to yet. Outside of Shards of Alara, new Alara cards have popped up in multiple commander products, Magic 2013 (which brought back the Exalted mechanic) and Magic Origins.

Bant's theology is actually heavily based on Zoroastrianism.
Bant by Michael Komarck
Setting the Stage
Alara is a pretty interesting place, the only plane in the known multiverse that has been physically rent into what are known as shards. The shards were formed during an event known as the Sundering. Who, or what, had the power to separate the plane is unknown, although it’s suspected to have been the result of an ancient planeswalker’s intervention. How the plane was sundered is less important than what happened next. Each of the shards had access to only three of the five colors of mana, resulting in drastically different societies developing, focusing along the lines of magic available to the shard.

Alara was the setting for two novels: Alara Unbroken, telling the tale of the Alara Block as the five shards reunited, and Test of Metal, a dubiously canonical planeswalker novel and notably the last of the Planeswalker novels. Alara Unbroken is a decent book: it’s neither excellent nor a bad read, and it’s structured in such a way that it jumps quickly between different stories.

A Note on Test of Metal

Test of Metal, on the other hand, is an odd duck. It’s not a poorly written book at all. In fact, Tezzeret’s characterization is excellent and he’s satisfyingly complex. I should be clear that I’m actually a fan of Matt Stover’s Star Wars novels. The problem is, the novel took so many liberties with the various other characters that it’s really hard to figure out what exactly went wrong. For one thing, all the characters speak like they’re present day Americans. Could you imagine Bilbo turning to Gandalf and telling him to Keep It Simple Stupid? Worse, it also introduced the most mind-numbingly terrible magical discipline in all of Magic: Clockworking. Clockworking is a magic that pulls from alternate realities for the user to find almost anything they want. Because of the nature of this magic, it’s likely that even if this novel is canon, literally all the characters described within are unlikely to be our versions of the characters. To put it in perspective, elements of Test of Metal were retconned by Dark Discoveries only seven months after the novel was published. It has yet to be seen if Kaladesh will acknowledge it, outright contradict it, or simply ignore it.

The Kaiju Plane has an amusing riff on Godzilla's Legacy.
Naya by Zoltan Boros & Gabor Szikzai

Very little is known about Ancient Alara, but we can presume that it looks very little like the Alara of today. From the little evidence we have, many of the shards were more similar than they are today, with the difference between them only arising after the Sundering and subsequent divisions between the planes, namely, the lack of mana affecting the shard’s development and even geography. There are hints of darker forces in Bant and noble forces in Grixis that imply they were once of a kind with one another.

Bant is a shard of coastlines and savannahs. The Island nation of Jhess lies along the eastern shore of Bant, across the sea from the coastal nation of Valeron. Valeron is home to the Sun Dappled Court, a symbolic topiary that represents Valeron’s twelve noble families. Beyond Valeron are the inner three nations of Eos, Akrasa, and Topa. Not much is known about Eos or Topa, but Akrasa is known as the Sea of Grass. Akrasa is also home to Giltspire Castle, which was built around an Obelisk of Bant and destroyed as part of Nicol Bolas’ plan for the Conflux. Due to the alliances involved, it’s likely that Eos and Topa share a border with Valeron on one side and Akrasa on the other.

Esper is an archipelago shard of islands, seas, and a vast glass desert. It has many notable and diverse seas, light and dark, calm and turbulent. The most notable might be Inkwell, a pitch black sea home to leviathans. The Glass Dunes is Esper’s largest land mass, and is simply a vast desert of glass. Tidehollow is a vast cavern system that extends for miles under Esper’s largest islands, and has become the home of Esper’s underclass. Vectis is the largest human settlement, while Palandius is the largest Vedalken city. Esper is an incredibly well fleshed out shard, with many unique locations, but very few ultimately matter to the plot.

Grixis is a dying plane of corruption and decay. The Dregscape is a huge swampland where the corpses of creatures rot for centuries. Grixis is populated by the ruins of its former civilizations, known as Necropolises, and a scattering of hermitages populated by the living. There are three major Necropolises on Grixis: Kederekt, Unx and Sedraxis. Kederekt is a former coastal city half sunk into the acid sea. Unx is a giant sinkhole located around an ancient arena. The last, Sedraxis, used to be the capital of the Vithian nation.

Not much is known specifically about Jund and Naya's geography. Jund is divided rather simply into highlands and lowlands, with various named mountains but no permanent settlements or locations of note. Naya has permanent settlements, but the only remaining civilization of note is the Cloud Nacatl remnant of Qasal.

The reborn Alara combined the shards in unusual ways. It’s clear that, at least for the most part, the shards were geographical divisions of the original Alara. Based on how the story plays out, it seems clear that the shards overlap at least somewhat with their neighboring shard in the color pie. In my head, the reborn Alara looks a little like this: One large ocean (or many small seas) that the coasts of Bant, Esper and Grixis all connect to. Going in the other direction from the coast of Bant, you’d move roughly through Naya, Jund and finally into Grixis until you reach the opposite coast. It's not clear what shape Alara is, but since the novel Alara Unbroken mentions a heart where all five planes meet, I assume that it's a relatively flat plane. If it were a sphere, the planes would all touch each other on both sides.

Jund, the Libertarian Fantasy Plane.
Jund by Aleksi Briclot

Bant’s politics are the most rigidly organized of all the shards. Angels are ever-present on Bant, and while they’re not worshiped in quite the same way as other planes, they play a major role in society and have their own ranks. The angel Asha, missing since the Sundering, is the highest ranking angel on the plane. Below Asha is the Court of Orderly Contemplation, made up of seven angels called Asura. It appears that each is based on an aspect of Bant society, but that is only speculation from the only revealed Asura: War. Following the Asura are the Amesha, who represent Ideals, and the Mahra, who carry out the Amesha’s orders. The lowest rank, Celebrants, protect mortals and their ideals.

A caste system dominates mortal culture on Bant, made up largely of humans, rhox and aven. At the top are the Blessed, nobles who lead nations and speak with angels. Below the Blessed are the Sighted, the cleric caste, although they don’t typically deal with angels, instead turning toward other spiritual matters. The Sigiled are next, made up of beings who’ve accumulated sigils, bestowed by patrons, for accomplishing great deeds. They're basically knightly merit badges. Below the Sigiled are the Mortar, who are the practical caste of merchants and laborers. The Unbeholden are the lowest caste, made up of the criminal element of Bant.

Besides the castes, there are a number of knightly orders that each fulfill a function in society. The Skyward Eye are a kind of morality police, enforcing righteousness. The Bright Dove are border guards and customs inspectors. Weirdly, this also seems to be the function of The Wayfarer’s Friends, which is possibly a mistake, or an indication that The Bright Dove is an order in the Wayfarer’s Friends. Knights of the Reliquary search for knowledge and relics of ancient Bant. Disputes on Bant are settled through ritualized displays, most typically through a contest of arms between designated champions. These contests are always non-lethal, fought with magically blunted weapons.

It's worth noting that Bant's faith seems heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism, especially considering terms like Amesha, benevolent Asura, Asha, etc.

Esper is divided largely into two societies, that of humans and of the vedalken, both of which can only be described as a mageocracy. Over both societies are the sphinxes, led by Sharuum. Human society is based around status, with the size of a person’s retinue indicating their power and status. The ultimate expression of this idea are the Telemin, people who have sold themselves as living puppets for others to control. Vedalken society, by contrast, is based around the pursuit of enlightenment. This pursuit is exemplified in the Filigree texts, sacred texts worked in Etherium containing the vedalken’s accumulated knowledge.

The metallic substance known as Etherium is the most valuable material on Esper, and an individual’s importance and power is often directly represented by the amount of their body they’ve replaced with the substance. This pursuit is led by the Ethersworn, a group following the teachings of the sphinx Crucius. The Ethersworn call this the Noble Work, and if you’re getting Phyrexian vibes from this, you’re not too far off base: the Esper mechanic of colored artifacts was originally planned for Phyrexia’s return. The secret to making more Etherium was lost with the disappearance of Crucius, and so Esper’s supplies are stretched thinner and thinner with each passing year. The Seekers of Carmot are a group claiming to have rediscovered the secret of making Etherium, using a material called Carmot that no longer exists on Esper. They claim to have recorded these secrets in the Codex Etherium, but in truth they’re a sham.

It's unclear how anything survives on Grixis, but a hardy few do.
Grixis by Nils Hamm
Grixis, as a shard, is controlled primarily by the demon/dragon hybrid Malfegor, however for some time Malfegor has actually served another: the Elder Dragon planeswalker Nicol Bolas. The unlife on Grixis is in constant pursuit of the power of life, known as Vis. The undead and Necromancers alike seek its power. The few remaining living holdouts are known as Vithians, the last survivors of the nation once located on Grixis before the Sundering. They cling to life in hidden fortresses called hermitages.

Jund is all about survival of the fittest in a brutal circle of life. Dragons dominate the top of the food chain, and all other creatures duke it out for second place. Among the intelligent beings to do so are the humans, viashino and goblins of Jund. Goblin society has evolved around a perverse desire to be eaten by a dragon. Viashino are organized into what are called Thrashes, and typically conduct sneak attacks against the other creatures of the plane. Humans are organized into clans, and will typically fall into either warriors or shamans. Regardless of which path of human takes, their life will be a struggle for survival as they’re tested brutally from a young age for survival skills. The shaman ritual is particularly brutal, as young shamans are given Dreamfire Draught, a poison, to drink. They then have to bond an elemental to cure themselves before they die. Warriors and shaman alike use braids as a symbol of status, with achievements denoted by additional braids.

Naya has three different societies: human, elf and nacatl. All three base their day to day lives on the movements of the Gargantuans, the giant beasts of Naya’s lush forests. The Gargantuans are revered as gods by the people of Naya. The humans are relatively unimportant, but notable in that they tend toward permanent settlements, a dangerous prospect in Naya with Gargantua stomping about. The elves, known as Cylians (after their founder Cylia) all swear loyalty to the Anima, the high priestess of an order of elvish druids with connections to the Gargatuans. The rest of the elves are nomads who move along the forest’s canopy. Finally, the Nacatl were once the most advanced civilization on Alara, but due to the actions of a rogue named Marisi, their society was split in two: the Cloud Nacatl and the Wild Nacatl. The Cloud Nacatl once built cities with great skill atop the mountains of Naya, and had an organized society known as the Empire of the Clouds bound by a social code known as the Coil. Marisi rebelled against this and caused the civilization's downfall, leading the Nacatl to the jungle where they would regain their connection to nature. Few Cloud Nacatl remain, Qasal being the last remaining settlement, while the Wild Nacatl thrive under a loose tribal structure led by Kha, or chiefs.

Poor Esper didn't get a planechase card or a named character in Alara Unbroken.
Arcane Sanctum by Anthony Francisco

Each Shard is home to a number of unique creatures (and some that overlap but developed differently). They tend to be similar to their counterparts on other worlds, with a few exceptions.

On Bant, the sentient beings are human, rhox and aven. Humans are as you would expect, while rhox intermingle with humans fairly freely but also tend to lead more solitary lives as monks. The aven also intermingle, but tend to keep to themselves along the coasts. There, angels are artificial beings created through an ancient enchantment. According to the Planeswalker Guide, the next step for high castes and the truly noble is for their souls to be echoed as angels. One unique creature of interest is the leotau, hooved lions of above average size intelligence that serve as mounts for the inner nations.

Esper’s primary sentients are humans, vedalken and sphinxes, who we discussed above. Also of note are homunculi, artificial beings used as part of human’s retinues. The plane is home to a number of other creatures, including gargoyles, drakes, krakens, leviathan, and a number of beings called scullers, mysterious zombie boatmen who roam tidehollow. Sometimes perfection through etherium goes too far and creatures who have been enhanced through artifice become Aether Liches. My personal favorite are the striges (strix in singular), owl-like creatures with psychic abilities.

Other shards are a bit less diverse. Jund is home to humans, viashino and goblins, but most importantly dragons and a wide variety of predators. Grixis is pretty much all undead, all the time, with some surviving humans here and there. Aven have managed to survive here as well, but they’ve taken on more vulture-like qualities when compared to their cousins in Bant. The ogres of Grixis suffer from an odd curse as well, and are known as the Incurables. Naya is home to humans, elves and nacatl (which are Alara's take on catfolk), but the real interest is the kaiju-like Gargantuans. The Gargantuans are mostly made up of different types of beasts, but they tend to be as tall if not taller than the forest they inhabit.

Thanks for reading! There is plenty more to talk about when it comes to Alara, so come back next time when we'll discuss all the characters from Alara (there are a lot) and start delving into the story.

Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments or on the forum, and we will address it in future updates. Have a suggestion for something you want to see? Let us know, and we may address it in a future column. You can also follow me on twitter @Jay13x or Archive Trap Mini on Tumblr.


  • To post a comment, please or register a new account.
Posts Quoted:
Clear All Quotes